Finding inspiration through prison's book club

When Pamela Griffith flipped open the book in her prison cell and began to read, she felt an immediate, visceral connection in an environment where personal bonds of any type are in notoriously short supply.

"It's funny. You feel a kinship in a certain way," Griffith, 53, told the other inmates participating in an unusual book club that's been running for nearly five years at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup. She leaned forward, and the words flew out of her:

"Because her cells did what they did and the researchers did what they did, I'm sitting here today. Henrietta Lacks saved my life. It's almost like I was meeting my second mom. I think everyone who has survived cancer and read this book would feel the same way."

For Griffith, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" was a revelation that she might never have made had it not been for Brenda P. Murray, an administrative law judge for the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission.

Murray founded the book club in 2006 at the request of an inmate who told her that one of the hardest parts of being in prison was the intellectual deprivation.

In the past five years, book group members have plowed through some of the most demanding texts in the modern and classical canon. They've read Sophocles' "Antigone" and Shakespeare's "Othello." They've immersed themselves in works by William Faulkner, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Gabriel Garcia Márquez.

But, their response isn't only, or even primarily, intellectual. They also relate, at times emotionally and profoundly, to the women depicted in the pages they read.

Griffith wasn't merely learning about Henrietta Lacks, an impoverished Baltimore woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. The life Griffith was really discovering was her own.

She was raised in Dundalk; Lacks lived just a few blocks away, in Turners Station. And it was Lacks' cells — harvested from her body without her knowledge — that led to the development of cancer drugs that helped cure a desperately ill 14-year-old.

"For me," Griffith said, "this book was a tear-jerker. I know what she went through, and it was horrible. I was losing my hair. I was throwing up every day from the chemicals they gave me. I wanted to die. If I could have died, I would have."

She is in awe of the stoic fortitude that Lacks displayed. If Lacks persevered when her life was unimaginably bleak, perhaps Griffith can, as well.

"She didn't even tell anyone she was sick," Griffith said. "She just kept on taking care of her kids. For me, she is the hero of this story."

It's responses like this that motivate Murray to devote not just her time but her pocketbook to keep the book club running.

Given Murray's current job and background — she is the daughter of a high-ranking Massachusetts police officer — she might not be expected to have much sympathy for women convicted of such crimes as child abuse and first-degree homicide. (Griffith, formerly of Dundalk, was sentenced in 2009 to 15 years in prison — with 12 of those years suspended — for continuous theft of sums greater than $1,000.)

But Murray is involved in the National Association of Women Judges, and leads the group's committee on female inmates. It's worth noting that no taxpayer monies are used for the book club; Murray has kept the group going on a wing, a prayer and the occasional grant from a private foundation.

Many of the 15 college professors and lecturers she has recruited donate their services for free. And it was Murray herself who footed the $300 bill to provide copies of Rebecca Skloot's biography of Henrietta Lacks to the incarcerated women.

"There is a stereotype about women prisoners, and it's very difficult to overcome," Murray says.

"When we started, some people said that judges had no business getting involved with prisoners because the judicial branch shouldn't infringe on the executive branch. The public says, 'Why should I educate those women when I'm struggling to pay tuition for my own kids?'

"But all the studies show that inmates who get an education are less likely to go back to prison. These women are like sponges. It's a sight to behold. If you believe at all in redemption, you have to believe that some good can come out of what we're trying to do."

The book group's success has spawned other programs for the female inmates, including a writing workshop that meets once a month. Murray also helped put together a college curriculum at the institution that is thought to be one of just two degree-granting programs currently operating at women's prisons in the U.S. A member of the book group is just one course shy of earning an associate's degree from Anne Arundel Community College.

"I think a lot of times people miss the bigger picture, which is that more than 90 percent of inmates will get out some day," says Mark Vernarelli, director of public information for Maryland's prison system.

"We have a responsibility to make sure they get out in better shape than they came in. This means offering those who want to change and make a concerted effort to be better people the chance to earn a high school or college diploma, break their addictions, get anger management and other counseling, and, yes, be able to have book clubs, religious activities and the like."

When Skloot's book was up for discussion last week, the atmosphere in the room was indistinguishable from any college literature course, except that the participants ranged in age from their 20s to their 60s, and many were wearing loose blue chambray work shirts stamped "DOC."

Pam Scheff, a senior lecturer at the Johns Hopkins University, and Karen Fish, who teaches writing at Loyola University Maryland, gently prodded the inmates to discuss the issues of exploitation, racism and medical ethics raised by Skloot's tome.

The debate was passionate, opinionated. The women's voices scrambled over one another like waves breaking near a beach. As one voice temporarily receded, another rose up to take its place.

One woman kept her hands busy by folding delicate, colorful origami birds. She has spent nearly two decades serving a sentence of life in prison for first-degree homicide.

Murray is as aware as anyone of the contradiction posed by the manner in which the women present themselves and their criminal dossiers.

"It's not that these people should be glorified," she says. "Some of their crimes are not good. But they're not all evil. It's strange. They're lovely people. They have strict and often conservative moral standards, which surprised me. I have met only one whom I would not trust."

She knows that no book club can reform anyone's character. But she has noticed that after time has passed, group members begin to express themselves more clearly, and use better grammar. Several said they puzzle over the issues raised in the books with their fellow inmates during their work assignments.

For instance, 21-year-old Ashley Davis, formerly of Baltimore, vowed that in the future, she would be an informed medical consumer.

"When we go to the doctor, we have to start asking questions," said Davis, who is serving a five-year prison term for burglary. "Otherwise, we put ourselves on the table as specimens without even knowing it."

Violet Gaston, 23, formerly of Toledo, Ohio, was struck the most by the sad legacy of motherlessness in Skloots' book, a cycle that was repeated over generations.

"Henrietta Lacks lost her mother at a young age, and then she lost her children," said Gaston, who was incarcerated for dealing drugs. "I know the loneliness she felt. There's a special feeling of security that only a mother can give a little girl."

Not surprisingly, Gaston's daughters — 6-year-old Zaireanna and 2-year-old Elanah — were very much on her mind as she read Lacks' story. Gaston hasn't been able to spend much time with her girls in the nearly two years that she's spent behind bars.

But that's about to change.

After the session had ended, she said: "This is my last night here. I get out at 8 a.m. tomorrow," and her smile lit up the dark prison hallway.

She has plans for her life after she leaves — she wants to enroll in a community college to study to be a real estate agent — and those plans were formed in part because of her participation in the reading group.

"I wanted to come to book group tonight because I like being around all these educated women," Gaston said.

"They helped prepare me, showed me I could handle myself on the outside. They made me dream about what I might do, who I might be."

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